Oregon Sustainability Center

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A Balancing Act: Early designs of the OSC


The latest iteration of the OSC sits among its predecessors, soon to be swapped for yet another draft.

Good news: it’s possible.

Thanks to rigorous trial, error, number crunching, model building, draft scrapping, and model re-building, we now have a path to achieving net zero energy and net zero water in a high rise building.

Good news, yes, but it is only the beginning. We are months away from knowing what such a building might actually look like. Yet its early designs, each a unique exploration into the extremes of form and function, reveal that by working within parameters that maximize highly efficient harvesting and use of energy and water, a living building on an urban scale can, in fact, be possible.


How did we get here?

Earlier this week, the OSC’s core team at GBD and SERA presented designs and fielded questions on the path they’ve taken to date. In attendance were members of the OSC working group, and three invited guests from the project’s advisory committee: Alice Wiewel, Director of Capital Planning at the Oregon University System; Christine Theodoropolous, Department Head at the University of Oregon School of Architecture; and Sergio Palleroni, fellow and professor at Portland State University’s Center for Sustainable Practices and Processes.

Much like a standard academic design review, the session was informal, emphasizing candid feedback and dialog. There was clearly plenty to say, as the group was engaged in a lively discussion that lasted over two hours.

The project’s lead designers, Kyle Andersen of GBD and Kurt Schultz of SERA, led the conversation.


After revisiting the OSC’s top five guiding principles, which emerged from the design charrette held in early April, and reviewing the building site within its greater context of the PSU campus, the planned SW Portland EcoDistrict, and the Montgomery Green Street, the focus turned to the designs.

We’ll let them drive the rest of this post…


This list of attributes hung alongside the sketches and notes on the wall. Each will need to work in concert not only with the project’s five guiding principles, and the complex program designed to meet the specific space needs of each building tenant, but also the rigorous prerequisites of the Living Building Challenge, the catalyst which first brought everyone together months ago.



The earliest models of the OSC were a study in “bracketing the extremes” of biophilic form, designing from the most pure (a raindrop) to the most abstract (the “torque”). With the exception of the Courtyard scheme (described below), all early designs were for a 250 foot tall building.


The Raindrop scheme.


The Nautilus scheme.


The Kidney Bean scheme.

The Raindrop, Nautilus, and Kidney Bean schemes each included an atrium that punched light all the way through the building, tying, in the design team’s view, the entire building together. Later analysis revealed that a top-to-bottom opening would not effectively achieve the daylighting the team was after, and also posed structural (mechanical pressure/comfort) and safety concerns.


The Torque scheme.

The Torque scheme pushed the “building as metaphor” idea one step further, mimicking in its upper levels the behavior of a sunflower as it unfurls and tracks the sun across the sky. For the building, such a twist, or “torque”, gradually changes the building orientation from the urban form of the block toward a solar-friendly orientation.

The Courtyard scheme.

In addition to the object-based explorations, the team explored how feasible it could be to fit all of the building’s program into a shorter building, in this case 170 ft. They found they could fit the program, but the Courtyard scheme was, in their opinion, at the cost of the building’s sculptural, inspiring form. They did not explore this further.

Early feedback encouraged the team to look more deeply into the Nautilus and Torque schemes, to see whether it might be possible to merge these two ideas into a single form. Here are two of those studies.





At play in these designs is the push and pull between the building’s program, which at last check called for 250,000 to 260,000 square feet, and the total surface area necessary on the site to house all of the photovoltaic panels required for the building’s energy production. The grid-like panels in these models represent those PV panels.

Last week, the core project team agreed to pursue a design that achieved net zero energy, first, and fit the program, second. This decision, combined with revisions to the Nautilus-Torque hybrid, led to the latest 220,000 square foot design, which fell prey to the most intense scrutiny at this week’s design review.


The ground floor, shown here with Montgomery Street at the top, must wear many hats: Gateway to the building, a stop for the southbound streetcar, a southern flank to the Montgomery Green Street, a shortcut for pedestrians passing through, host to interactive exhibit space, one stop among many for stormwater as it travels from the rooftops to areas of infiltration, to name a few.

Two options for the streetcar’s path remain on the table: First, to keep its tracks as they are today, with the northbound path traveling along Montgomery Street, or second, to divert the tracks so that both north- and southbound cars cut directly through, and under, the building. Moving the tracks off of Montgomery creates opportunities for the green street to be closed for festivals and events. General consensus at the design critique was leaning toward this second option, as it facilitates lively interaction in and around the building.


Replacing the single, 15-story shaft of light, open gardens now alternate up the building with north- and south-facing exposures. The north-facing, Montgomery Green Street side includes a green wall that climbs uninterrupted to the 7th floor, using a continuous stream of vegetation to pull the green street into and up the building.  The design also proposes alternating the men’s and women’s restrooms on the upper floors, a generally reductive measure to save on fixtures, square footage, and water.


Structural elements and garden spaces ring the outer perimeter of the building, with elevators and restrooms clustered at the core. Honoring the guiding vision of the Torque, the floor plan rotates four degrees on every level.





This week’s critique focused primarily on the lower levels, which, according to the advisory board, felt the least successful. The design team agreed, noting there were still many unanswered questions.

As the end of the feasibility study nears (early June), they will continue on their quest, looking more deeply into where the primary entrance should be (favoring the green street, or favoring the sun?), how to activate and energize the ground floor (is it a hub, or a thoroughfare, or how can it be both?), how to soften the site so that it’s experienced as a lush forest with a canopy of trees (PV panels) overhead, how to address the urban design challenges (what is the building’s relationship to its neighbors? how is it experienced from down the street? from across the river?)…

“We’ve been juggling a lot of things,” says Kyle Andersen of GBD. “The energy for the building, how big is the building, how tall is the building, where do we put the PV’s…now we need to really come back full circle, looking harder at this, the human experience of the building.”

“Whatever design we end up with in the feasibility study is purely a vehicle to demonstrate the feasibility of the project, it is not necessarily the final design,” continues Andersen. “It is one of many potential designs. But the bigger picture is that it demonstrates that [a Living Building of this scale] can be done. It could look like this, it could be square, it could be rectangle, it could be tall and skinny…But we’ve also found that there are parameters, how much PV do you have, so how long is the building facing south, and so on…it’s a balancing act. But [this is] definitely not the final design.”

The OSC’s design will continue to evolve. Meanwhile, the project team is busy digging in to the equally burning question of How much will it cost? More on that one, later.

Thank you to Kyle Andersen of GBD, Lisa Petterson of SERA, and Kathryn Krygier, for their input.

All photos by Eugénie Frerichs.


Filed under: Design Progress, Project History

6 Responses

  1. Bob R. says:

    This is a great presentation of ideas, both in terms of stand-alone architecture and site use.

    I’m particularly pleased that the option for a double-track streetcar cutting across the property is still on the table.

    This was a formal recommendation for the block from the Portland Streetcar Citizen’s Advisory Committee. (If you’d like a copy of that letter which goes over the details, I can dig one up.)

    Regarding the layout of the site and courtyard, personally I think one of the better features of any courtyard design is the ability to get a bit of nature and sunlight while being completely surrounded by the built environment. Thus, I would favor designs which maximized the view of the sky and the opportunity for appropriately-scaled street trees and landscaping.

    • OSC says:

      We are currently working on a blog post that will describe in greater detail the plaza and urban design. I think you have actually hit on two very key components to the design. In one way it serves counter, yet complimentary, to the Urban Studies Center Plaza. The Urban Studies Center plaza has a very classical order in the making of the space and has a lot of hardscape to hang out and enjoy the sun. The concept for the OSC plaza is more organic in form, lush and tries to create smaller rooms surrounded by nature and buildings. For our on-site energy production we have an overhead canopy which holds a large PV array. This array in particular will be translucent, and bi-facial, meaning it will generate power both on the top surface, and on the bottom surface from bounced light. The translucent canopy and the wood support structure begin to suggest a forest floor with the dapple of light. Of course there will be direct sunlight at the perimeter. We hope in the end the two plazas of the Urban Studies Center and the Oregon Sustainability Center will work together to create diverse outdoor experiences in the rooms within the city. Thank you for the comment! – OSC

  2. Steve says:

    You say, “Last week, the core project team agreed to pursue a design that achieved net zero energy, first, and fit the program, second.”

    Does this mean that the size of the building would be smaller then what is needed, or that the PV energy would be less then needed and would be supplemented beyond the PVs?

    • OSC says:

      That’s a great question.

      We found in our early massing studies and energy calculations that there is a sweet spot where we are able to generate all energy loads on site by balancing a myriad of constraints and needs. The first step was to reduce the energy load of the building by an amount to the tune of 70%+ below a code building. This was supplemented by passive solutions, such as daylighting, and small amounts of passive ventilation in concert with a very high performance skin. As well, heating and cooling solutions which use radiant systems, that rely on pump energy will help reduce the energy load of the building.

      When coming to our final energy load for the building we began to analyze what the building could support with on-site power, while we were working with tenant groups to better understand overlapping space needs. Currently we are working with the tenants to quantify shared spaces such as conference facilities, break rooms, and work rooms, to name a few. There will be a conference facility that will have ancillary conference and meeting rooms that the tenants will be able to utilize, but there may be floor-by-floor conference rooms, for example, that all tenants would share.

      We are not sizing the program of the building per the available PV production, but rather we are looking at a holistic building solution, both in program and efficiency that can meet both energy and space needs for the tenants. In the end the tenants may realize that they do not need as much space as they first thought. There are many opportunities in this building to re-think how you do business, as well as how you build buildings.

  3. Steve says:

    Is there a possibility to include the Harrison Court Apartments in the project?

    If the project included low income to mid income apartments, it would seem like a more robust example of a living building, and support the important sustainable concept of reuse.

    Also, the current models don’t seem to visually acknowledge the historic Harrison Court Apartments.

    Though the new building doesn’t shadow the apartments very much, if at all, it would shadow other buildings and lessen their potential for solar cells.

    Does the living building equation take into account the impact on other buildings?

    • OSC says:

      Thank you for all the great questions, we like to keep this dialog going.

      The Harrison Court Apartments are under separate ownership and the building is in the National Historic Register and will remain in that status.

      “If the project included low income to mid income apartments, it would seem like a more robust example of a living building, and support the important sustainable concept of reuse.”

      The current program for the OSC does not have any residential component in it, although we did discuss short-term housing facilities for visiting faculty or other tenants that could be part of the research of actually living in a “living Building”. At this time though that is not part of the building program.

      “Also, the current models don’t seem to visually acknowledge the historic Harrison Court Apartments.”

      The building solution is trying to respond in scale to the existing apartment building, by first holding the majority of the massing to the north side of the streetcar tracks, and breaking up the large overhead PV canopy into two pieces, with the one closest to the apartment building being lower. We are looking into adding a large amount of natural landscaping to buffer and soften the edges. We would like to explore the potential of actually connecting the apartment building to the plaza, so that it can take advantage of the large open space. We have not had those conversations yet with owner of the apartment building to see if there are some opportunities to engage the open space directly from within their building.

      “Though the new building doesn’t shadow the apartments very much, if at all, it would shadow other buildings and lessen their potential for solar cells.
      Does the living building equation take into account the impact on other buildings?”

      Certainly resource equity is a very important concern with this project. You are correct the OSC will not cast a shadow on the existing apartment building to the south, but it certainly will cast a shadow on the existing building to the north. Curiously the PSU Rec Center casts a shadow on our site in late afternoon. Early analysis we did for any existing or future development opportunities that surround us, helped us tailor where to optimize PV production. The small Portland city blocks make it difficult to develop large buildings to take advantage of land cost and density opportunities while optimizing solar access without having some impact on neighboring sites. The shape of the building tries to minimize those impacts by stepping back at the edges, and softening the form of the building, but ultimately this is a tall building on a small site. For water, we are returning more than 50% of the water that we capture and use on site. That water will recharge the aquifer likely through S.W. Montgomery Street. The building does not go over any other adjacent sites to take advantage of natural resources – all resources are gained on site for the OSC.

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